Project Gutenberg EBook, Earth's Holocaust, by Nathaniel Hawthorne
From "Mosses From An Old Manse"
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Title: Earth's Holocaust (From "Mosses From An Old Manse")
Author: Nathaniel Hawthorne
Release Date: Nov, 2005 [EBook #9231]
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MOSSES FROM AN OLD MANSE
By Nathaniel Hawthorne
Once upon a time--but whether in the time past or time to come is a
matter of little or no moment--this wide world had become so
overburdened with an accumulation of worn-out trumpery, that the
inhabitants determined to rid themselves of it by a general bonfire.
The site fixed upon at the representation of the insurance
companies, and as being as central a spot as any other on the globe,
was one of the broadest prairies of the West, where no human
habitation would be endangered by the flames, and where a vast
assemblage of spectators might commodiously admire the show. Having
a taste for sights of this kind, and imagining, likewise, that the
illumination of the bonfire might reveal some profundity of moral
truth heretofore hidden in mist or darkness, I made it convenient to
journey thither and be present. At my arrival, although the heap of
condemned rubbish was as yet comparatively small, the torch had
already been applied. Amid that boundless plain, in the dusk of the
evening, like a far off star alone in the firmament, there was merely
visible one tremulous gleam, whence none could have anticipated so
fierce a blaze as was destined to ensue. With every moment,
however, there came foot-travellers, women holding up their aprons,
men on horseback, wheelbarrows, lumbering baggage-wagons, and other
vehicles, great and small, and from far and near, laden with
articles that were judged fit for nothing but to be burned.
"What materials have been used to kindle the flame?" inquired I of a
bystander; for I was desirous of knowing the whole process of the
affair from beginning to end.
The person whom I addressed was a grave man, fifty years old or
thereabout, who had evidently come thither as a looker-on. He
struck me immediately as having weighed for himself the true value
of life and its circumstances, and therefore as feeling little
personal interest in whatever judgment the world might form of them.
Before answering my question, he looked me in the face by the
kindling light of the fire.
"O, some very dry combustibles," replied he, "and extremely suitable
to the purpose,--no other, in fact, than yesterday's newspapers,
last month's magazines, and last year's withered leaves. Here now
comes some antiquated trash that will take fire like a handful of
As he spoke, some rough-looking men advanced to the verge of the
bonfire, and threw in, as it appeared, all the rubbish of the
herald's office,--the blazonry of coat armor, the crests and
devices of illustrious families, pedigrees that extended back, like
lines of light, into the mist of the dark ages, together with stars,
garters, and embroidered collars, each of which, as paltry a bawble
as it might appear to the uninstructed eye, had once possessed vast
significance, and was still, in truth, reckoned among the most
precious of moral or material facts by the worshippers of the
gorgeous past. Mingled with this confused heap, which was tossed
into the flames by armfuls at once, were innumerable badges of
knighthood, comprising those of all the European sovereignties, and
Napoleon's decoration of the Legion of Honor, the ribbons of which
were entangled with those of the ancient order of St. Louis. There,
too, were the medals of our own Society of Cincinnati, by means of
which, as history tells us, an order of hereditary knights came near
being constituted out of the king quellers of the Revolution. And
besides, there were the patents of nobility of German counts and
barons, Spanish grandees, and English peers, from the worm-eaten
instruments signed by William the Conqueror down to the bran-new
parchment of the latest lord who has received his honors from the
fair hand of Victoria.
At sight of the dense volumes of smoke, mingled with vivid jets of
flame, that gushed and eddied forth from this immense pile of
earthly distinctions, the multitude of plebeian spectators set up a
joyous shout, and clapped their hands with an emphasis that made the
welkin echo. That was their moment of triumph, achieved, after long
ages, over creatures of the same clay and the same spiritual
infirmities, who had dared to assume the privileges due only to
Heaven's better workmanship. But now there rushed towards the
blazing heap a gray-haired man, of stately presence, wearing a coat,
from the breast of which a star, or other badge of rank, seemed to
have been forcibly wrenched away. He had not the tokens of
intellectual power in his face; but still there was the demeanor,
the habitual and almost native dignity, of one who had been born to
the idea of his own social superiority, and had never felt it
questioned till that moment.
"People," cried he, gazing at the ruin of what was dearest to his
eyes with grief and wonder, but nevertheless with a degree of
stateliness,--"people, what have you done? This fire is consuming
all that marked your advance from barbarism, or that could have
prevented your relapse thither. We, the men of the privileged
orders, were those who kept alive from age to age the old chivalrous
spirit; the gentle and generous thought; the higher, the purer, the
more refined and delicate life. With the nobles, too, you cast off
the poet, the painter, the sculptor,--all the beautiful arts; for
we were their patrons, and created the atmosphere in which they
flourish. In abolishing the majestic distinctions of rank, society
loses not only its grace, but its steadfastness--"
More he would doubtless have spoken; but here there arose an outcry,
sportive, contemptuous, and indignant, that altogether drowned the
appeal of the fallen nobleman, insomuch that, casting one look of
despair at his own half-burned pedigree, he shrunk back into the
crowd, glad to shelter himself under his new-found insignificance.
"Let him thank his stars that we have not flung him into the same
fire!" shouted a rude figure, spurning the embers with his foot.
"And henceforth let no man dare to show a piece of musty parchment
as his warrant for lording it over his fellows. If he have strength
of arm, well and good; it is one species of superiority. If he have
wit, wisdom, courage, force of character, let these attributes do
for him what they may; but from this day forward no mortal must hope
for place and consideration by reckoning up the mouldy bones of his
ancestors. That nonsense is done away."
"And in good time," remarked the grave observer by my side, in a low
voice, however, "if no worse nonsense comes in its place; but, at
all events, this species of nonsense has fairly lived out its life."
There was little space to muse or moralize over the embers of this
time-honored rubbish; for, before it was half burned out, there came
another multitude from beyond the sea, bearing the purple robes of
royalty, and the crowns, globes, and sceptres of emperors and kings.
All these had been condemned as useless bawbles, playthings at best,
fit only for the infancy of the world or rods to govern and chastise
it in its nonage, but with which universal manhood at its full-grown
stature could no longer brook to be insulted. Into such contempt
had these regal insignia now fallen that the gilded crown and
tinselled robes of the player king from Drury Lane Theatre had been
thrown in among the rest, doubtless as a mockery of his brother
monarchs on the great stage of the world. It was a strange sight to
discern the crown jewels of England glowing and flashing in the
midst of the fire. Some of them had been delivered down from the
time of the Saxon princes; others were purchased with vast revenues,
or perchance ravished from the dead brows of the native potentates
of Hindustan; and the whole now blazed with a dazzling lustre, as if
a star had fallen in that spot and been shattered into fragments.
The splendor of the ruined monarchy had no reflection save in those
inestimable precious stones. But enough on this subject. It were
but tedious to describe how the Emperor of Austria's mantle was
converted to tinder, and how the posts and pillars of the French
throne became a heap of coals, which it was impossible to
distinguish from those of any other wood. Let me add, however, that
I noticed one of the exiled Poles stirring up the bonfire with the
Czar of Russia's sceptre, which he afterwards flung into the flames.
"The smell of singed garments is quite intolerable here," observed
my new acquaintance, as the breeze enveloped us in the smoke of a
royal wardrobe. "Let us get to windward and see what they are doing
on the other side of the bonfire."
We accordingly passed around, and were just in time to witness the
arrival of a vast procession of Washingtonians,--as the votaries of
temperance call themselves nowadays,--accompanied by thousands of
the Irish disciples of Father Mathew, with that great apostle at
their head. They brought a rich contribution to the bonfire, being
nothing less than all the hogsheads and barrels of liquor in the
world, which they rolled before them across the prairie.
"Now, my children," cried Father Mathew, when they reached the verge
of the fire, "one shove more, and the work is done. And now let us
stand off and see Satan deal with his own liquor."
Accordingly, having placed their wooden vessels within reach of the
flames, the procession stood off at a safe distance, and soon beheld
them burst into a blaze that reached the clouds and threatened to
set the sky itself on fire. And well it might; for here was the
whole world's stock of spirituous liquors, which, instead of
kindling a frenzied light in the eyes of individual topers as of
yore, soared upwards with a bewildering gleam that startled all
mankind. It was the aggregate of that fierce fire which would
otherwise have scorched the hearts of millions. Meantime numberless
bottles of precious wine were flung into the blaze, which lapped up
the contents as if it loved them, and grew, like other drunkards,
the merrier and fiercer for what it quaffed. Never again will the
insatiable thirst of the fire-fiend be so pampered. Here were the
treasures of famous bon vivants,--liquors that had been tossed on
ocean, and mellowed in the sun, and hoarded long in the recesses of
the earth,--the pale, the gold, the ruddy juice of whatever
vineyards were most delicate,--the entire vintage of Tokay,--all
mingling in one stream with the vile fluids of the common pot house,
and contributing to heighten the self-same blaze. And while it rose
in a gigantic spire that seemed to wave against the arch of the
firmament and combine itself with the light of stars, the multitude
gave a shout as if the broad earth were exulting in its deliverance
from the curse of ages.
But the joy was not universal. Many deemed that human life would be
gloomier than ever when that brief illumination should sink down.
While the reformers were at work I overheard muttered expostulations
from several respectable gentlemen with red noses and wearing gouty
shoes; and a ragged worthy, whose face looked like a hearth where
the fire is burned out, now expressed his discontent more openly and
"What is this world good for," said the last toper, "now that we can
never be jolly any more? What is to comfort the poor man in sorrow
and perplexity? How is he to keep his heart warm against the cold
winds of this cheerless earth? And what do you propose to give him
in exchange for the solace that you take away? How are old friends
to sit together by the fireside without a cheerful glass between
them? A plague upon your reformation! It is a sad world, a cold
world, a selfish world, a low world, not worth an honest fellow's
living in, now that good fellowship is gone forever!"
This harangue excited great mirth among the bystanders; but,
preposterous as was the sentiment, I could not help commiserating
the forlorn condition of the, last toper, whose boon companions had
dwindled away from his side, leaving the poor fellow without a soul
to countenance him in sipping his liquor, nor indeed any liquor to
sip. Not that this was quite the true state of the case; for I had
observed him at a critical moment filch a bottle of fourth-proof
brandy that fell beside the bonfire and hide it in his pocket.
The spirituous and fermented liquors being thus disposed of, the
zeal of the reformers next induced them to replenish the fire with
all the boxes of tea and bags of coffee in the world. And now came
the planters of Virginia, bringing their crops of tobacco. These,
being cast upon the heap of inutility, aggregated it to the size of
a mountain, and incensed the atmosphere with such potent fragrance
that methought we should never draw pure breath again. The present
sacrifice seemed to startle the lovers of the weed more than any
that they had hitherto witnessed.
"Well, they've put my pipe out," said an old gentleman, flinging it
into the flames in a pet. "What is this world coming to? Everything
rich and racy--all the spice of life--is to be condemned as useless.
Now that they have kindled the bonfire, if these nonsensical
reformers would fling themselves into it, all would be well enough!"
"Be patient," responded a stanch conservative; "it will come to that
in the end. They will first fling us in, and finally themselves."
From the general and systematic measures of reform I now turn to
consider the individual contributions to this memorable bonfire. In
many instances these were of a very amusing character. One poor
fellow threw in his empty purse, and another a bundle of counterfeit
or insolvable bank-notes. Fashionable ladies threw in their last
season's bonnets, together with heaps of ribbons, yellow lace, and
much other half-worn milliner's ware, all of which proved even more
evanescent in the fire than it had been in the fashion. A multitude
of lovers of both sexes--discarded maids or bachelors and couples
mutually weary of one another--tossed in bundles of perfumed letters
and enamored sonnets. A hack politician, being deprived of bread by
the loss of office, threw in his teeth, which happened to be false
ones. The Rev. Sydney Smith--having voyaged across the Atlantic for
that sole purpose--came up to the bonfire with a bitter grin and
threw in certain repudiated bonds, fortified though they were with
the broad seal of a sovereign state. A little boy of five years
old, in the premature manliness of the present epoch, threw in his
playthings; a college graduate, his diploma; an apothecary, ruined
by the spread of homeopathy, his whole stock of drugs and medicines;
a physician, his library; a parson, his old sermons; and a fine
gentleman of the old school, his code of manners, which he had
formerly written down for the benefit of the next generation. A
widow, resolving on a second marriage, slyly threw in her dead
husband's miniature. A young man, jilted by his mistress, would
willingly have flung his own desperate heart into the flames, but
could find no means to wrench it out of his bosom. An American
author, whose works were neglected by the public, threw his pen and
paper into the bonfire and betook himself to some less discouraging
occupation. It somewhat startled me to overhear a number of ladies,
highly respectable in appearance, proposing to fling their gowns and
petticoats into the flames, and assume the garb, together with the
manners, duties, offices, and responsibilities, of the opposite sex.
What favor was accorded to this scheme I am unable to say, my
attention being suddenly drawn to a poor, deceived, and half-
delirious girl, who, exclaiming that she was the most worthless
thing alive or dead, attempted to cast herself into the fire amid
all that wrecked and broken trumpery of the world. A good man,
however, ran to her rescue.
"Patience, my poor girl!" said he, as he drew her back from the
fierce embrace of the destroying angel. "Be patient, and abide
Heaven's will. So long as you possess a living soul, all may be
restored to its first freshness. These things of matter and
creations of human fantasy are fit for nothing but to be burned when
once they have had their day; but your day is eternity!"
"Yes," said the wretched girl, whose frenzy seemed now to have sunk
down into deep despondency, "yes, and the sunshine is blotted out of
It was now rumored among the spectators that all the weapons and
munitions of war were to be thrown into the bonfire with the
exception of the world's stock of gunpowder, which, as the safest
mode of disposing of it, had already been drowned in the sea. This
intelligence seemed to awaken great diversity of opinion. The
hopeful philanthropist esteemed it a token that the millennium was
already come; while persons of another stamp, in whose view mankind
was a breed of bulldogs, prophesied that all the old stoutness,
fervor, nobleness, generosity, and magnanimity of the race would
disappear,--these qualities, as they affirmed, requiring blood for
their nourishment. They comforted themselves, however, in the belief
that the proposed abolition of war was impracticable for any length
of time together.
Be that as it might, numberless great guns, whose thunder had long
been the voice of battle,--the artillery of the Armada, the
battering trains of Marlborough, and the adverse cannon of Napoleon
and Wellington,--were trundled into the midst of the fire. By the
continual addition of dry combustibles, it had now waxed so intense
that neither brass nor iron could withstand it. It was wonderful to
behold how these terrible instruments of slaughter melted away like
playthings of wax. Then the armies of the earth wheeled around the
mighty furnace, with their military music playing triumphant
marches,--and flung in their muskets and swords. The standard-
bearers, likewise, cast one look upward at their banners, all
tattered with shot-holes and inscribed with the names of victorious
fields; and, giving them a last flourish on the breeze, they lowered
them into the flame, which snatched them upward in its rush towards
the clouds. This ceremony being over, the world was left without a
single weapon in its hands, except possibly a few old king's arms
and rusty swords and other trophies of the Revolution in some of our
State armories. And now the drums were beaten and the trumpets
brayed all together, as a prelude to the proclamation of universal
and eternal peace and the announcement that glory was no longer to
be won by blood, but that it would henceforth be the contention of
the human race to work out the greatest mutual good, and that
beneficence, in the future annals of the earth, would claim the
praise of valor. The blessed tidings were accordingly promulgated,
and caused infinite rejoicings among those who had stood aghast at
the horror and absurdity of war.
But I saw a grim smile pass over the seared visage of a stately
old commander,--by his war-worn figure and rich military dress, he
might have been one of Napoleon's famous marshals,--who, with the
rest of the world's soldiery, had just flung away the sword that had
been familiar to his right hand for half a century.
"Ay! ay!" grumbled he. "Let them proclaim what they please; but,
in the end, we shall find that all this foolery has only made more
work for the armorers and cannon-founders."
"Why, sir," exclaimed I, in astonishment, "do you imagine that the
human race will ever so far return on the steps of its past madness
as to weld another sword or cast another cannon?"
"There will be no need," observed, with a sneer, one who neither
felt benevolence nor had faith in it. "When Cain wished to slay his
brother, he was at no loss for a weapon."
"We shall see," replied the veteran commander. "If I am mistaken,
so much the better; but in my opinion, without pretending to
philosophize about the matter, the necessity of war lies far deeper
than these honest gentlemen suppose. What! is there a field for all
the petty disputes of individuals? and shall there be no great law
court for the settlement of national difficulties? The battle-field
is the only court where such suits can be tried."
"You forget, general," rejoined I, "that, in this advanced stage of
civilization, Reason and Philanthropy combined will constitute just
such a tribunal as is requisite."
"Ah, I had forgotten that, indeed!" said the old warrior, as he
The fire was now to be replenished with materials that had hitherto
been considered of even greater importance to the well-being of
society than the warlike munitions which we had already seen
consumed. A body of reformers had travelled all over the earth in
quest of the machinery by which the different nations were
accustomed to inflict the punishment of death. A shudder passed
through the multitude as these ghastly emblems were dragged forward.
Even the flames seemed at first to shrink away, displaying the shape
and murderous contrivance of each in a full blaze of light, which of
itself was sufficient to convince mankind of the long and deadly
error of human law. Those old implements of cruelty; those horrible
monsters of mechanism; those inventions which it seemed to demand
something worse than man's natural heart to contrive, and which had
lurked in the dusky nooks of ancient prisons, the subject of terror-
stricken legend,--were now brought forth to view. Headsmen's axes,
with the rust of noble and royal blood upon them, and a vast
collection of halters that had choked the breath of plebeian
victims, were thrown in together. A shout greeted the arrival of
the guillotine, which was thrust forward on the same wheels that had
borne it from one to another of the bloodstained streets of Paris.
But the loudest roar of applause went up, telling the distant sky of
the triumph of the earth's redemption, when the gallows made its
appearance. An ill-looking fellow, however, rushed forward, and,
putting himself in the path of the reformers, bellowed hoarsely, and
fought with brute fury to stay their progress.
It was little matter of surprise, perhaps, that the executioner
should thus do his best to vindicate and uphold the machinery by
which he himself had his livelihood and worthier individuals their
death; but it deserved special note that men of a far different
sphere--even of that consecrated class in whose guardianship the
world is apt to trust its benevolence--were found to take the
hangman's view of the question.
"Stay, my brethren!" cried one of them. "You are misled by a false
philanthropy; you know not what you do. The gallows is a Heaven-
ordained instrument. Bear it back, then, reverently, and set it up
in its old place, else the world will fall to speedy ruin and
"Onward! onward!" shouted a leader in the reform. "Into the flames
with the accursed instrument of man's bloody policy! How can human
law inculcate benevolence and love while it persists in setting up the
gallows as its chief symbol? One heave more, good friends, and the
world will be redeemed from its greatest error."
A thousand hands, that nevertheless loathed the touch, now lent
their assistance, and thrust the ominous burden far, far into the
centre of the raging furnace. There its fatal and abhorred image
was beheld, first black, then a red coal, then ashes.
"That was well done!" exclaimed I.
"Yes, it was well done," replied, but with less enthusiasm than I
expected, the thoughtful observer, who was still at my side,--"well
done, if the world be good enough for the measure. Death, however,
is an idea that cannot easily be dispensed with in any condition
between the primal innocence and that other purity and perfection
which perchance we are destined to attain after travelling round the
full circle; but, at all events, it is well that the experiment
should now be tried."
"Too cold! too cold!" impatiently exclaimed the young and ardent
leader in this triumph. "Let the heart have its voice here as well
as the intellect. And as for ripeness, and as for progress, let
mankind always do the highest, kindest, noblest thing that, at any
given period, it has attained the perception of; and surely that
thing cannot be wrong nor wrongly timed."
I know not whether it were the excitement of the scene, or whether
the good people around the bonfire were really growing more
enlightened every instant; but they now proceeded to measures in the
full length of which I was hardly prepared to keep them company.
For instance, some threw their marriage certificates into the
flames, and declared themselves candidates for a higher, holier, and
more comprehensive union than that which had subsisted from the
birth of time under the form of the connubial tie. Others hastened
to the vaults of banks and to the coffers of the rich--all of which
were opened to the first comer on this fated occasion--and brought
entire bales of paper-money to enliven the blaze, and tons of coin
to be melted down by its intensity. Henceforth, they said,
universal benevolence, uncoined and exhaustless, was to be the
golden currency of the world. At this intelligence the bankers and
speculators in the stocks grew pale, and a pickpocket, who had
reaped a rich harvest among the crowd, fell down in a deadly
fainting fit. A few men of business burned their day-books and
ledgers, the notes and obligations of their creditors, and all other
evidences of debts due to themselves; while perhaps a somewhat
larger number satisfied their zeal for reform with the sacrifice of
any uncomfortable recollection of their own indebtment. There was
then a cry that the period was arrived when the title-deeds of
landed property should be given to the flames, and the whole soil of
the earth revert to the public, from whom it had been wrongfully
abstracted and most unequally distributed among individuals.
Another party demanded that all written constitutions, set forms of
government, legislative acts, statute-books, and everything else on
which human invention had endeavored to stamp its arbitrary laws,
should at once be destroyed, leaving the consummated world as free
as the man first created.
Whether any ultimate action was taken with regard to these
propositions is beyond my knowledge; for, just then, some matters
were in progress that concerned my sympathies more nearly.
"See! see! What heaps of books and pamphlets!" cried a fellow, who
did not seem to be a lover of literature. "Now we shall have a
"That's just the thing!" said a modern philosopher. "Now we shall
get rid of the weight of dead men's thought, which has hitherto
pressed so heavily on the living intellect that it has been
incompetent to any effectual self-exertion. Well done, my lads!
Into the fire with them! Now you are enlightening the world
"But what is to become of the trade?" cried a frantic bookseller.
"O, by all means, let them accompany their merchandise," coolly
observed an author. "It will be a noble funeral-pile!"
The truth was, that the human race had now reached a stage of
progress so far beyond what the wisest and wittiest men of former
ages had ever dreamed of, that it would have been a manifest
absurdity to allow the earth to be any longer encumbered with their
poor achievements in the literary line. Accordingly a thorough and
searching investigation had swept the booksellers' shops, hawkers'
stands, public and private libraries, and even the little book-shelf
by the country fireside, and had brought the world's entire mass of
printed paper, bound or in sheets, to swell the already mountain
bulk of our illustrious bonfire. Thick, heavy folios, containing the
labors of lexicographers, commentators, and encyclopedists, were
flung in, and, falling among the embers with a leaden thump,
smouldered away to ashes like rotten wood. The small, richly gilt
French tomes of the last age, with the hundred volumes of Voltaire
among them, went off in a brilliant shower of sparkles and little
jets of flame; while the current literature of the same nation
burned red and blue, and threw an infernal light over the visages of
the spectators, converting them all to the aspect of party-colored
fiends. A collection of German stories emitted a scent of
brimstone. The English standard authors made excellent fuel,
generally exhibiting the properties of sound oak logs. Milton's
works, in particular, sent up a powerful blaze, gradually reddening
into a coal, which promised to endure longer than almost any other
material of the pile. From Shakespeare there gushed a flame of such
marvellous splendor that men shaded their eyes as against the sun's
meridian glory; nor even when the works of his own elucidators were
flung upon him did he cease to flash forth a dazzling radiance from
beneath the ponderous heap. It is my belief that he is still
blazing as fervidly as ever.
"Could a poet but light a lamp at that glorious flame," remarked I,
"he might then consume the midnight oil to some good purpose."
"That is the very thing which modern poets have been too apt to do,
or at least to attempt," answered a critic. "The chief benefit to
be expected from this conflagration of past literature undoubtedly
is, that writers will henceforth be compelled to light their lamps
at the sun or stars."
"If they can reach so high," said I; "but that task requires a
giant, who may afterwards distribute the light among inferior men.
It is not every one that can steal the fire from heaven like
Prometheus; but, when once he had done the deed, a thousand hearths
were kindled by it."
It amazed me much to observe how indefinite was the proportion
between the physical mass of any given author and the property of
brilliant and long-continued combustion. For instance, there was
not a quarto volume of the last century--nor, indeed, of the
present--that could compete in that particular with a child's little
gilt-covered book, containing _Mother Goose's Melodies_. _The Life
and Death of Tom Thumb_ outlasted the biography of Marlborough. An
epic, indeed a dozen of them, was converted to white ashes before
the single sheet of an old ballad was half consumed. In more than
one case, too, when volumes of applauded verse proved incapable of
anything better than a stifling smoke, an unregarded ditty of some
nameless bard--perchance in the corner of a newspaper--soared up
among the stars with a flame as brilliant as their own. Speaking of
the properties of flame, methought Shelley's poetry emitted a purer
light than almost any other productions of his day, contrasting
beautifully with the fitful and lurid gleams and gushes of black
vapor that flashed and eddied from the volumes of Lord Byron. As
for Tom Moore, some of his songs diffused an odor like a burning
I felt particular interest in watching the combustion of American
authors, and scrupulously noted by my watch the precise number of
moments that changed most of them from shabbily printed books to
indistinguishable ashes. It would be invidious, however, if not
perilous, to betray these awful secrets; so that I shall content
myself with observing that it was not invariably the writer most
frequent in the public mouth that made the most splendid appearance
in the bonfire. I especially remember that a great deal of
excellent inflammability was exhibited in a thin volume of poems by
Ellery Channing; although, to speak the truth, there were certain
portions that hissed and spluttered in a very disagreeable fashion.
A curious phenomenon occurred in reference to several writers,
native as well as foreign. Their books, though of highly
respectable figure, instead of bursting into a blaze or even
smouldering out their substance in smoke, suddenly melted away in a
manner that proved them to be ice.
If it be no lack of modesty to mention my own works, it must here be
confessed that I looked for them with fatherly interest, but in
vain. Too probably they were changed to vapor by the first action
of the heat; at best, I can only hope that, in their quiet way, they
contributed a glimmering spark or two to the splendor of the
"Alas! and woe is me!" thus bemoaned himself a heavy-looking
gentleman in green spectacles. "The world is utterly ruined, and
there is nothing to live for any longer. The business of my life is
snatched from me. Not a volume to be had for love or money!"
"This," remarked the sedate observer beside me, "is a bookworm,--one
of those men who are born to gnaw dead thoughts. His clothes, you
see, are covered with the dust of libraries. He has no inward
fountain of ideas; and, in good earnest, now that the old stock is
abolished, I do not see what is to become of the poor fellow. Have
you no word of comfort for him?"
"My dear sir," said I to the desperate bookworm, "is not nature
better than a book? Is not the human heart deeper than any system
of philosophy? Is not life replete with more instruction than past
observers have found it possible to write down in maxims? Be of
good cheer. The great book of Time is still spread wide open before
us; and, if we read it aright, it will be to us a volume of eternal
"O, my books, my books, my precious printed books!" reiterated the
forlorn bookworm. "My only reality was a bound volume; and now they
will not leave me even a shadowy pamphlet!"
In fact, the last remnant of the literature of all the ages was now
descending upon the blazing heap in the shape of a cloud of
pamphlets from the press of the New World. These likewise were
consumed in the twinkling of an eye, leaving the earth, for the
first time since the days of Cadmus, free from the plague of
letters,--an enviable field for the authors of the next generation.
"Well, and does anything remain to be done?" inquired I, somewhat
anxiously. "Unless we set fire to the earth itself, and then leap
boldly off into infinite space, I know not that we can carry reform
to any farther point."
"You are vastly mistaken, my good friend," said the observer.
"Believe me, the fire will not be allowed to settle down without the
addition of fuel that will startle many persons who have lent a
willing hand thus far."
Nevertheless there appeared to be a relaxation of effort for a
little time, during which, probably, the leaders of the movement
were considering what should be done next. In the interval, a
philosopher threw his theory into the flames,--a sacrifice which, by
those who knew how to estimate it, was pronounced the most
remarkable that had yet been made. The combustion, however, was by
no means brilliant. Some indefatigable people, scorning to take a
moment's ease, now employed themselves in collecting all the
withered leaves and fallen boughs of the forest, and thereby
recruited the bonfire to a greater height than ever. But this was
"Here comes the fresh fuel that I spoke of," said my companion.
To my astonishment the persons who now advanced into the vacant
space around the mountain fire bore surplices and other priestly
garments, mitres, crosiers, and a confusion of Popish and Protestant
emblems with which it seemed their purpose to consummate the great
act of faith. Crosses from the spires of old cathedrals were cast
upon the heap with as little remorse as if the reverence of
centuries passing in long array beneath the lofty towers had not
looked up to them as the holiest of symbols. The font in which
infants were consecrated to God, the sacramental vessels whence
piety received the hallowed draught, were given to the same
destruction. Perhaps it most nearly touched my heart to see among
these devoted relics fragments of the humble communion-tables and
undecorated pulpits which I recognized as having been torn from the
meeting-houses of New England. Those simple edifices might have
been permitted to retain all of sacred embellishment that their
Puritan founders had bestowed, even though the mighty structure of
St. Peter's had sent its spoils to the fire of this terrible
sacrifice. Yet I felt that these were but the externals of
religion, and might most safely be relinquished by spirits that best
knew their deep significance.
"All is well," said I, cheerfully. "The wood-paths shall be the
aisles of our cathedral, the firmament itself shall be its ceiling.
What needs an earthly roof between the Deity and his worshippers?
Our faith can well afford to lose all the drapery that even the
holiest men have thrown around it, and be only the more sublime in
"True," said my companion; "but will they pause here?"
The doubt implied in his question was well founded. In the general
destruction of books already described, a holy volume, that stood
apart from the catalogue of human literature, and yet, in one sense,
was at its head, had been spared. But the Titan of innovation,--
angel or fiend, double in his nature, and capable of deeds befitting
both characters,--at first shaking down only the old and rotten
shapes of things, had now, as it appeared, laid his terrible hand
upon the main pillars which supported the whole edifice of our moral
and spiritual state. The inhabitants of the earth had grown too
enlightened to define their faith within a form of words, or to
limit the spiritual by any analogy to our material existence.
Truths which the heavens trembled at were now but a fable of the
world's infancy. Therefore, as the final sacrifice of human error,
what else remained to be thrown upon the embers of that awful pile,
except the book which, though a celestial revelation to past ages,
was but a voice from a lower sphere as regarded the present race of
man? It was done! Upon the blazing heap of falsehood and worn-out
truth--things that the earth had never needed, or had ceased to
need, or had grown childishly weary of--fell the ponderous church
Bible, the great old volume that had lain so long on the cushion of
the pulpit, and whence the pastor's solemn voice had given holy
utterance on so many a Sabbath day. There, likewise, fell the
family Bible, which the long-buried patriarch had read to his
children,--in prosperity or sorrow, by the fireside and in the
summer shade of trees,--and had bequeathed downward as the heirloom
of generations. There fell the bosom Bible, the little volume that
had been the soul's friend of some sorely tried child of dust, who
thence took courage, whether his trial were for life or death,
steadfastly confronting both in the strong assurance of immortality.
All these were flung into the fierce and riotous blaze; and then a
mighty wind came roaring across the plain with a desolate howl, as
if it were the angry lamentation of the earth for the loss of
heaven's sunshine; and it shook the gigantic pyramid of flame and
scattered the cinders of half-consumed abominations around upon the
"This is terrible!" said I, feeling that my check grew pale, and
seeing a like change in the visages about me.
"Be of good courage yet," answered the man with whom I had so often
spoken. He continued to gaze steadily at the spectacle with a
singular calmness, as if it concerned him merely as an observer.
"Be of good courage, nor yet exult too much; for there is far less
both of good and evil in the effect of this bonfire than the world
might be willing to believe."
"How can that be?" exclaimed I, impatiently. "Has it not consumed
everything? Has it not swallowed up or melted down every human or
divine appendage of our mortal state that had substance enough to be
acted on by fire? Will there be anything left us to-morrow morning
better or worse than a heap of embers and ashes?"
"Assuredly there will," said my grave friend. "Come hither
to-morrow morning, or whenever the combustible portion of the pile
shall be quite burned out, and you will find among the ashes
everything really valuable that you have seen cast into the flames.
Trust me, the world of to-morrow will again enrich itself with the
gold and diamonds which have been cast off by the world of today.
Not a truth is destroyed nor buried so deep among the ashes but it
will be raked up at last."
This was a strange assurance. Yet I felt inclined to credit it, the
more especially as I beheld among the wallowing flames a copy of the
Holy Scriptures, the pages of which, instead of being blackened into
tinder, only assumed a more dazzling whiteness as the fingermarks of
human imperfection were purified away. Certain marginal notes and
commentaries, it is true, yielded to the intensity of the fiery
test, but without detriment to the smallest syllable that had flamed
from the pen of inspiration.
"Yes; there is the proof of what you say," answered I, turning to
the observer; "but if only what is evil can feel the action of the
fire, then, surely, the conflagration has been of inestimable
utility. Yet, if I understand aright, you intimate a doubt whether
the world's expectation of benefit would be realized by it."
"Listen to the talk of these worthies," said he, pointing to a group
in front of the blazing pile; "possibly they may teach you something
useful, without intending it."
The persons whom he indicated consisted of that brutal and most
earthy figure who had stood forth so furiously in defence of the
gallows,--the hangman, in short,--together with the last thief and
the last murderer, all three of whom were clustered about the last
toper. The latter was liberally passing the brandy bottle, which he
had rescued from the general destruction of wines and spirits. This
little convivial party seemed at the lowest pitch of despondency, as
considering that the purified world must needs be utterly unlike the
sphere that they had hitherto known, and therefore but a strange and
desolate abode for gentlemen of their kidney.
"The best counsel for all of us is," remarked the hangman, "that,
as soon as we have finished the last drop of liquor, I help you, my
three friends, to a comfortable end upon the nearest tree, and then
hang myself on the same bough. This is no world for us any longer."
"Poh, poh, my good fellows!" said a dark-complexioned personage, who
now joined the group,--his complexion was indeed fearfully dark, and
his eyes glowed with a redder light than that of the bonfire; "be
not so cast down, my dear friends; you shall see good days yet.
There is one thing that these wiseacres have forgotten to throw into
the fire, and without which all the rest of the conflagration is
just nothing at all; yes, though they had burned the earth itself to
"And what may that be?" eagerly demanded the last murderer.
"What but the human heart itself?" said the dark-visaged stranger,
with a portentous grin. "And, unless they hit upon some method of
purifying that foul cavern, forth from it will reissue all the
shapes of wrong and misery--the same old shapes or worse ones--which
they have taken such a vast deal of trouble to consume to ashes. I
have stood by this livelong night and laughed in my sleeve at the
whole business. O, take my word for it, it will be the old world
This brief conversation supplied me with a theme for lengthened
thought. How sad a truth, if true it were, that man's age-long
endeavor for perfection had served only to render him the mockery of
the evil principle, from the fatal circumstance of an error at the
very root of the matter! The heart, the heart, there was the little
yet boundless sphere wherein existed the original wrong of which the
crime and misery of this outward world were merely types. Purify
that inward sphere, and the many shapes of evil that haunt the
outward, and which now seem almost our only realities, will turn to
shadowy phantoms and vanish of their own accord; but if we go no
deeper than the intellect, and strive, with merely that feeble
instrument, to discern and rectify what is wrong, our whole
accomplishment will be a dream, so unsubstantial that it matters
little whether the bonfire, which I have so faithfully described,
were what we choose to call a real event and a flame that would
scorch the finger, or only a phosphoric radiance and a parable of my
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